Lee Davelaar, IWMI West Africa
The temperature has soared to well over 30 degrees, but Kwasi Asare and Samuel La show no signs of slowing down.
With each heavy scoop of their shovels, steam rises from the mound of waste and organic material they are turning. It’s hard work but it is vital to kick-start a scientific process that could hold the key to increasing agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa.
It is all part of the ‘Fertilizer Pellet Fertilization Project’ (FPFP), an innovative project led by the Resource Recovery & Reuse team at the West Africa office of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
The project is looking to harness the organic potency of human waste and turn it into safe, hygienic fertilizer pellets that are suitable and safe for application by farmers.
If successful, this fertilizer will help farmers increase the organic content and nutrient levels of their poor soils, which in turn can increase the water-holding capacity and crop yields of their farming land.
As Project Leader, Josiane Nikiema, explains, Samuel and Kwasi’s hard work is an important part in the early phase of the project.
“This material being turned by Kwasi and Samuel is a combination of human waste and other natural products such as sawdust and organic food scraps,” says Josiane. “That is why you can see they take precautions with their equipment and their clothes. By constantly turning and resting the materials, we help create a natural heat treatment during the composting process that will assist in removing pathogens while minimizing nutrient losses.”
The use of human waste or fecal sludge in agriculture is not a new concept. It has been used effectively in Asia for centuries. However, its use in sub-Saharan Africa is relatively new, and the West Africa office of IWMI has been exploring the potential it could hold for agriculture in the region since 2001.
“Unlike animal manure or farm residue traditionally, the use of human manure in agriculture has been met with some opposition in sub-Saharan Africa,” says Josiane. “However, this was more at the regulatory level than at the farmer’s end. Farmers appreciate the material.”
Josiane understands that cultural resistance to the use of human waste in food production is a confounding factor that needs to be addressed.
“It’s understandable that there are concerns when dealing with this product. That’s why the project puts significant emphasis on controlling or eliminating the possibility of disease incidence,” she explains. “These options have been researched and verified by IWMI and partners, and now need to be explained to farmers and the authorities to support the safe use of this important nutrient source.”
Human waste is an abundant, inexpensive resource and research indicates that, if treated effectively and applied correctly, it can hold numerous benefits for farmers.
Pelletizing the materials and mixing it with other nutrients, which is the current objective of the study, will make the product more marketable, easier to handle and easier to transport.
Josiane hopes the project will lead to the creation of a rich and valuable product that will have a prolonged shelf life and can be transported over long distances.
“This will help immensely in exploring options to make this form of resource recovery profitable for private investors,” says Josiane.
The project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the Grand Challenges Explorations Program.